Who owns The Handmaid’s Tale?
Margaret Atwood, author of the 1985 novel of that name, has announced plans to release a sequel, The Testaments, in September 2019. Narrated from the perspective of three different women, it will be set 15 years after the close of the original. Like many, I can’t wait to read it. At the same time, there are interesting questions to ask about where it might sit as a cultural and political offering.
From a publishing perspective, it’s the perfect time to release a follow-up. The original might be over 30 years old, but never has it been more talked about, thanks not least to the recent TV adaptation and the backlash politics of Donald Trump. From red dresses worn on pro-choice marches to jokes about Melania Trump’s Christmas trees, bits and pieces from Atwood’s story have taken on a life of their own. This is a good thing – it’s how brilliant literature should work – but one wonders at the prospect of Atwood reining it all back in to present a vision of the same concentration and impact.
Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale is in many ways quite distinct from the Handmaid’s Tale that occupies our current cultural consciousness. For instance, one wouldn’t need to have read the novel, nor even have watched the TV show, to know what is meant by everything going “a bit Handmaid’s Tale” in Trump’s US. References to Gilead can frequently be spotted in feminist protests against the administration’s regressive stance on reproductive rights. Atwood’s fictional state has come to represent contemporary conservatism, misogyny and religious fundamentalism. “We are being turned into handmaids” is a useful political shorthand, a way of saying “we see what you are doing to us – and we’ve always known you might.” It’s an effective way to make a point, but not without its risks.